Preventing Child Abuse: A Pathway Forward

[raw]Gabriel, Jose, Viola, Deandre, Dae’von, Erica – children who all were abused, neglected, tortured and died while in the custody of  those expected to love and care for them and failed miserably by their only safety net, Los Angeles County.  It’s not that the county hasn’t tried to fix what is obviously a beleaguered child protection system. Over the years the Board of Supervisors has established commissions, panels, committees, an inter-agency council and retained a special investigator; we have inspected, studied, audited and reorganized the Department of Children and Family Services. Seventeen men and women have helmed the agency in the past 25 years.

Picture an earthquake-shattered home rocked loose from its foundation, roof askew, cracks in its walls and contents in such stormy disarray that they threaten injury to those the house is meant to shelter. And our well-meant, endless series of reforms efforts? They are the equivalent of addressing the disaster by spackling over the holes, applying paint, laying down new carpet.

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Let me be clear, this is not to denigrate either the leadership or earnest efforts of those who have brought their talents to the work of rescuing children in danger. The task of fixing the system is simply beyond the capacities and comprehension of any one person and yes even our board of five. We are neither complacent nor apathetic. These most vulnerable children, placed in our custody by crisis, are our special care and responsibility – the entire board of supervisors is united in this sentiment.

So what to do? Step back, take stock of the entire system and be open to accepting that the structure can no longer be patched and repaired. There are times when government is simply unable to transcend a stagnant, intractable status quo despite its efforts to create a better system.

That’s why both Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich and I are calling for the Board to create a special blue ribbon commission to take a hard look at the county’s child protection system, and come up with either new practices to prevent child abuse, or if necessary, a new system itself. In other words, a new house.

Everything should be on the table, including, whether a new agency should be formed that melds some functions now housed in DCFS with those of other agencies. We’ve seen this work at the national level. In 2003, for example, the former federal Immigration and Naturalization Services separated into three agencies: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all lodged within the newly created Department of Homeland Security. With separation came not only clarity of purpose, but of function, as well as renewed respect.

At the county level, an agency combining units from such departments as DCFS, the Department of Health Services and the Department of Mental Health could the remove barriers to information sharing that now hampers child welfare investigations. These types of questions would be best answered by an independent commission that includes child welfare experts, one not locked into the political and jurisdictional alliances and conflicts that naturally occur in bureaucracies and among elected officials.

The Board of Supervisors might also call on an independent organization, such as the Casey Family Programs, to suggest initial guidelines for the scope of the commission. Doing so could broaden the ambitions of the commission and help set the platform for an objective and a frank review of DCFS.

We have had some success with blue ribbon panels, such as the recently convened Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence. The commission used its independence and expertise to make some necessary tough calls and identify effective path forward to make a better system.

I am not wedded to the idea of creating a new agency; ultimately, that recommendation and others is best made by a panel of child welfare experts. I am, however, committed to seeing that a high quality commission makes a thorough assessment of DCFS. I don’t know what our new structure will look like, but I know for certain the one we have now is badly broken down. No more spackle. Our children deserve better.